Cars & Bikes
Henry Ford built and sold the first Model T in 1908. This
year we celebrate the anniversary of the legendary car.
Henry Ford invented neither the automobile
nor the assembly line, but recast each to dominate a
new era. Indeed, no other individual of the last century
so completely transformed the way people go
from Point A to Point B.
Henry Ford’s son Edsel with the Model T
By improving the assembly line so that the Model
T could be produced ever more inexpensively, Ford
placed the power of the internal combustion engine
within reach of the average citizen. He transformed
the automobile itself from a luxury to a necessity.
The Advent of the Model T seemed to renew a
sense of independence among Americans who had
lost their pioneer spirit to industrialisation. Yet the
methods that Henry Ford devised for producing his
car so efficiently advanced that very industrialisation.
Like its inventor, the Model T represented both
high ideals and hard practicalities.
In the 1890s, any mechanic with tools, a
workbench, and a healthy imagination was a
potential titan in the infant industry. Even while
continuing his career at Edison, Ford devoted
himself to making a working automobile.
By rights, Henry Ford probably should have
been a farmer. He was born in 1863 in Dearborn,
Michigan, on the farm operated by his father,
an Irishman, and his mother, who was from
Even as a boy, young Henry had an aptitude
for inventing and used it to make machines that
reduced the drudgery of farm chores. At the age
of thirteen, he saw a coal-fired steam engine
lumbering along a long rural road, a sight that
galvanised his fascination with machines.
At sixteen, against the wishes of his father, he left
the farm for Detroit, where he found work as a
mechanic’s apprentice. Over the next dozen years
he advanced steadily, and became chief engineer
at the Edison Illuminating Company.
In 1891, he presented his wife Clara with a
design for an internal combustion engine, drawn
on the back of a piece of sheet music. The engine
was merely the heart of the new machine that
Ford hoped to build. On weekends and most
nights, he could be found in a shed in the back
of the family home, building the rest of the car.
So great was his obsession that the neighbours
called him Crazy Henry. However, at 2:00 a.m. on
June 4, 1896, Crazy Henry punched a large hole in
the wall of his shed, and emerged at the wheel of
an automobile - his automobile. In the weeks that
followed, Ford was often seen driving around the
streets of Detroit.
In 1901, Henry Ford poured his expertise into
a pair of big race cars, one of which he entered in
a ten-mile match race against a car built by
Alexander Winton, a leading automaker from
Ohio. The race took place in Grosse Pointe,
Michigan, and Ford’s car won.
Because of the victory, the coal merchant
Alexander Malcomson agreed to back Ford in
a new business venture. In 1903, they formed
the Ford Motor Company, in association with
about a dozen other investors.
In 1903, Ford’s 125 workers made 1700
cars in three different models. The cars were
comparatively expensive, and their high profit
margins pleased the stockholders.
Insisting that high prices ultimately slowed market expansion, Ford decided in 1906 to
introduce a new, cheaper model with a
lower profit margin: the Model N. Many
of his backers disagreed. While the N
was only a tepid success, Ford nonetheless
pressed forward with the design of
the car he really wanted to build. The
car that would be the Model T.“I will build a motorcar for the
great multitude,” he proclaimed. Such
a notion was revolutionary. Until then
the automobile had been a status
symbol painstakingly manufactured
However, Ford set out to make
the car a commodity. “Just like one
pin is like another pin when it comes
from the pin factory, or one match
is like another match when it comes
from the match factory,” he said.
In the winter of 1906, Ford had
secretly partitioned a twelve-by
fifteen-foot room in his plant, on
Piquette Avenue in Detroit. With a
few colleagues, he devoted two years to
the design and planning of the Model T.
Early on, they made an extensive
study of materials, the most valuable
aspect of which began in an offhand
way. During a car race in Florida, Ford
examined the wreckage of a French car
and noticed that many of its parts were
of lighter-than-ordinary steel.
The team on Piquette Avenue ascertained
that the French steel was a vanadium
alloy, but that no one in America
knew how to make it.
The finest steel
alloys then used in American automaking
provided 60,000 pounds of tensile
strength. Ford learned that vanadium
steel, which was much lighter, provided
170,000 pounds of tensile strength.
As part of the pre-production for
the new model, Ford imported a
metallurgist and bankrolled a steel mill. As a result, the only cars in the world
to utilise vanadium steel in the next five
years would be French luxury cars and
the Ford Model T. A Model T might
break down every so often, but it would
The car that finally emerged from
Ford’s secret design section at the
factory would change America forever.
For $825, a Model T customer could
take home a car that was light, at about
1200 pounds; relatively powerful, with a
four-cylinder, twenty horsepower
engine, and fairly easy to drive, with a
two-speed, foot-controlled ‘planetary’
Simple, sturdy, and versatile, the
little car would excite the public imagination.
It certainly fired up its inventor.
When Henry Ford brought the prototype
out of the factory for its first test
drive, he was too excited to drive. An
assistant had to take the wheel. “Well, I guess we’ve got started,”
Ford observed at the time. The car
went to the first customers on October
1, 1908. In its first year, over ten
thousand were sold, a new record for
an automobile model.
In 1909, mining magnate Robert
Guggenheim sponsored an auto race
from New York to Seattle in which
the only survivors were two Model T
Fords. “I believe Mr Ford has the
solution of the popular automobile,”